November 29, 2016 at 7:23 pm EST | by Michael K. Lavers
Mariela Castro pays tribute to uncle

Mariela Castro, gay news, Washington Blade

Mariela Castro, daughter of Cuban President Raúl Castro and niece of former Cuban President Fidel Castro, takes part in a march to commemorate the International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia in Havana on May 14, 2016. (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)

The niece of former Cuban President Fidel Castro on Tuesday paid tribute to her uncle at a memorial service that her organization held in his honor.

A picture that a source posted to his Facebook page shows Mariela Castro, director of Cuba’s National Center for Sexual Education that is known by the Spanish acronym CENESEX, standing in front of a large poster of her uncle as she spoke. The event took place at CENESEX’s offices in Havana’s Vedado neighborhood.

Fidel Castro died on Friday at the age of 90.

He sent thousands of gay men and others deemed unfit for military service to labor camps known as Military Units to Aid Production in the years after he toppled then-President Fulgencio Batista in the 1959 Cuban revolution.

Fidel Castro’s government forcibly quarantined people living with HIV/AIDS in state-run sanitaria until 1993. He formally apologized for the camps, which are known by the Spanish acronym UMAP, in 2010.

Poor health prompted Fidel Castro to resign in 2008. His brother, Raúl Castro, who is Mariela Castro’s father, succeeded him.

Mariela Castro over the last decade has spearheaded LGBT-specific issues on the island.

She led marches in Havana and in the city of Matanzas in May that commemorated the International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia. Evan Wolfson, founder of Freedom to Marry, Freedom to Work President Tico Almeida and transgender actress Candis Cayne are among those who took part.

Mariela Castro, who is a member of the Cuban Parliament, has spoken publicly in support of marriage rights for same-sex couples.

She voted against a 2013 bill that sought to ban discrimination in the workplace based on sexual orientation because it did not include gender identity.

Cuba’s national health care system has offered free sex-reassignment surgery since 2008, but Mariela Castro’s critics contend only a few dozen trans people have been able to access it. They have also said people with HIV/AIDS cannot easily obtain anti-retroviral drugs on the Communist island.

Independent Cuban LGBT advocates with whom the Blade has spoken say they frequently face ridicule and harassment. Authorities last month arrested Maykel González Vivero, a gay journalist and LGBT rights activist who has publicly criticized Mariela Castro and her father’s government, while he was covering the aftermath of Hurricane Matthew in the city of Baracoa.

“In Cuba there exists a word called dissident if you disagree with the government,” Juana Mora, an independent activist who has met with President Obama and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), told the Blade in May 2015 during an interview in Havana. “We really don’t consider ourselves dissidents, but we are in this category.”

Maykel González Vivero, Cuba, gay news, Washington Blade

Maykel González Vivero, an independent journalist and LGBT rights advocate, speaks with the Washington Blade in his apartment in Sagua la Grande, Cuba, on May 17, 2015. (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)

Fidel Castro’s funeral is scheduled to take place in the city of Santiago de Cuba. Jeffrey DeLaurentis, the chief of mission at the U.S. Embassy in Havana, and Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes will attend a memorial service for Fidel Castro that will take place in the Cuban capital on Tuesday.

Rhodes is among the White House officials who led the negotiations behind the normalization of diplomatic relations between the U.S. and Cuba that Obama and Raúl Castro announced on Dec. 17, 2014. Mariela Castro described the announcement as a “dream come true” during a subsequent interview with CNN’s Christiane Amanpour, while urging the U.S. to end its decades-long embargo against the Communist island.

“It is an impediment for our development,” said Mariela Castro.

Neither Mariela Castro nor CENESEX have ever responded to the Blade’s requests for interviews.

CENESEX, Cuba, Havana, gay news, Washington Blade

The Havana headquarters of the National Center for Sexual Education, the group run by Mariela Castro, daughter of Cuban President Raúl Castro, that spearheads a number of LGBT-specific campaigns in the country. (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)

Michael K. Lavers is the international news editor of the Washington Blade. Follow Michael

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